Blog: venture updates

Apr
05
2013
By Claire Zhang

PaperG, an advertising technology startup co-founded by Victor Wong (YC ’11), Ka Mo Lau (YC ’09), Victor Cheng (YC ’08), and Roger Lee, has partnered with some big names since its early days, including Hearst Corporation, Boston.com, the LATimes, AOL, and the New York Times, just to name a few. PaperG has designed a technology called “PlaceLocal” that uses the Internet to create custom, localized display advertisements in seconds. A company types their company name and location into a software, which then scours the web for relevant text and images, such as Google or Yelp reviews, and uses what it finds to make the ads.

In 2010, PaperG was described by the New York Times as “An Ad Engine to Put ‘Mad Men’ Out of Business” and Victor was deemed a young genius by the Nieman Journalism Lab. In 2011, Paper G made Forbes’ top 100 promising companies. Victor has also been featured in Forbes as one of “30 under 30” “Brightest Minds Rocking the Marketing World.” 

The company first began with a technology called “the Flyerboard.” This product took print ads and digitized them for online sharing. In the process, PaperG also learned that “there was a need for building digital ads from scratch and that it was incredibly hard and costly for most advertisers,” said Victor. Thus the current product, PlaceLocal was born, making ad building “incredibly easy.”

Of course, start-ups are never smooth sailing, especially in these economic times. Victor said that the financial crises were one of the toughest challenges the company faced on the road to the company’s success.

"Money dried up overnight, and it was really hard for most companies to raise enough money to survive or thrive,” said Victor.

To overcome this hurdle, PaperG closed a round of financing immediately on terms offered at the time instead of waiting too long while the market got worse. Flyerboard was kept alive as a source of revenue as the team worked on developing the new platform, PlaceLocal.

Victor knew the company was taking off when they started getting big name customers calling them instead of the other way around.  Since then, the company has moved into and outgrown seven offices – each with bigger leases and more space.

"Moving into new offices always gets me sentimental. Our newest office, perched slightly above San Francisco’s financial district, is my favorite one. There was a moment as we finished moving in and stood out on the balcony that I realized we’ve really made a place in the world for us and our ideas,” said Victor.           

From Yale to Entrepreneur

At Yale, Victor was involved in the Elmseed Enterprise Fund, which exposed him to the excitement of running a business. It was this that led him to entrepreneurship instead of pursuing medicine, like his father, or finance, which he had considered at the end of his freshman year. 

Victor credits the YEI for its community of mentors and peers for helping to develop the idea for PaperG, as well as providing many key hires and “even a key customer.” Victor was also able to speak with industry experts, such as Yale professors, through the Yale School of Management.

“Nothing could overstate the contribution though of the Yale alumni community which has made invaluable connections for us,” said Victor.

Looking to the Future

PaperG is currently working on expanding their company and bringing their product to not only local advertisers, but also online businesses and even national advertisers. 

From cellphones, to iPads and tablets, laptops, and even television monitors, these days, we have seemingly unlimited ways to access the media we want. Because of this, Victor says that “running a simple display ad campaign is now incredibly hard. 

“Our technology will make it easy to build and edit ads across all the necessary platforms,” said Victor.           

A key component of this growth is hiring a strong team.  However, Victor says, “We’ve found many new [college] graduates to be lacking in critical skills but full of eager attitudes. It’s been challenging as a result to hire someone with the perfect skill set for the job.”

So they’ve beefed up their own training and education programs, providing unlimited resources, offline courses, and books. The company has been working with other new startups to tackle the problem too.  

As for new entrepreneurs, Victor believes that it is important to realize that the process of building a startup is not easy, and never gets easier.

“You shouldn’t be doing startups because they are easy,” he said. “You should be doing it because you find them exciting and challenging. You should assume it will be a marathon, not a short sprint. You will be going at this for longer than you think and you’ll need to pour your life into this endeavor or you’ll never even have a chance at succeeding. Everyday you are hustling and busting you chops to make your dream happen.”

 

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Mar
28
2013
By Claire Zhang

 

Michael Inwald, SOM’10, has taken one of everybody’s favorite comfort foods – grilled cheese – and turned it into a burgeoning quick food service restaurant chain called Cheeseboy, though he doesn’t exactly like the term ‘success.’

“We’re still growing,” said Michael. “I would say it’s too early to say [we’re successful]. We’ve done a great job in a number of areas. We have a lot of stores that are doing well,” said Michael.

Yet, Michael has been named one of “10 Generation Next entrepreneurs to watch” by CNN Money. Cheeseboy made #13 on Nation’s Restaurant News’s list of 50 “Breakout Brands of 2013," and the restaurant currently has eight locations in the Northeast including Boston, Providence, and Milford. Even if not a “success,” Cheeseboy certainly seems to be thriving.

Though Michael was uncomfortable responding to the idea of “success,” he was able to name many things that Cheeseboy has done well.

“We have built a strong brand image, even though we’re still being discovered every day by customers,” said Michael.

Part of this image is demonstrating that quick service does not mean cutting back on quality. Cheeseboy restaurants use “all natural bread, premium cheese, [and] fresh toppings.” Their website boasts bread without “artificial preservatives, flavorings, or dough conditioners”; cheeses that include “Alpine Light Swiss, sharp cheddar and creamy white American”; and vegetable toppings that are hand-picked and cut every morning.

High-level quality translates to the atmosphere of the restaurants as well. With their fun fonts and slogans and bright colors, the restaurants seem comforting, friendly, inviting and modern. They are currently located in high traffic areas like food courts, but the company is planning to open a brick and mortar shop in Boston this spring.

“When you go to a Cheeseboy restaurant, you should feel like you are in an A+ class restaurant, everything from customer service to quality of food to the efficiency of operation,” said Michael.

Additionally, Cheeseboy seeks to cultivate a culture beyond profit driven business, supporting an organization called Serious Fun Camps, which provides year-round camp experiences to children with chronic and life-threatening conditions. They have pledged to donate “100% of sales on one full, busy day at each new Cheeseboy location” they open. Donation boxes are also located at every register.

Image from Jon Chesto (Wicked Local)

An Entrepreneurial Obsession

Michael attended the Yale School of Management when he was 29 years old. By then, he already had extensive business experience, having run two companies and working in marketing and business management for large companies. Entrepreneurship had been his goal since he was 17, and he never pursued any other career path. The first thing he did after graduating from Cornell was to start a company.

The idea for Cheeseboy originated from his personal experiences cooking grilled cheese for friends who would visit his apartment, and his own obsession with cheese in general. Friends suggested he do something entrepreneurial with the obsession.  So he began to look into it.

“I did the research, what kind of model it would be, whether it would be successful based on what other companies had or hadn’t done, then I looked into real estate to open up. I really needed a lot of capital to get a new brand off the ground, so I put it on the backburner.”

When Michael participated in the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute Summer Fellowship however, the idea came off the backburner. “I am forever indebted to YEI for giving me the launch pad and resources needed to get my company off the ground. I would not have this venture were it not for YEI,” said Michael.

The fellowship provided the time, resources, and training necessary for Michael to develop the venture. “It was there that I fine tuned my model. It was there that I met my investors. It was there that I met my initial mentors. It was there that I was encouraged to test [the venture] out in a real life environment, so that I could prove the model.”

“Nothing is as easy as you think it is” 

Michael’s biggest challenge in the business thus far has been building a cohesive and well functioning team. “It’s not just about hiring, it’s about retaining, letting people go – it’s a process that takes a long time. You don’t just post a job ad and hire people and all of a sudden everyone has the right skill set and works well. It takes a lot of trial and error,” said Michael. He sees building a team as the hardest part of any business, because once a good team is in place, then the daily operational challenges can be dealt with, but building the team comes first. 

In the process of building Cheeseboy, Michael has learned an extraordinary amount of things, so much that he finds them hard to pinpoint – ranging from real estate, to food production, to operations. In terms of the bigger picture, however, Michael noted that he learned “that nothing is as easy and as affordable as you might think it is. That’s probably the biggest education I had. No matter how much research you did to estimate something, how much planning goes into it, how conservative you think you might be in your budgeting, you just don’t know what you don’t know. You start learning those things as you go along in the process.”

For new startups and entrepreneurs, Michael has only one piece of advice: “Don’t start a company for the sake of starting a company. If there is no passion behind your idea and your desire to build a particular organization around a particular product or service, then it will be very difficult for you to enjoy success.”

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Dec
10
2012
By Claire Zhang

SilviaTerra 

SilviaTerra, a forest management technology startup that participated in YEI’s 2010 Fellowship, has enjoyed its share of success. It won the $25K Sabin Environmental Business Plan Prize at Yale and was named “Most Promising Green Tech Company of the Year” in 2010 by the Connecticut Technology Council as part of their Innovation Pipeline Awards. Max Uhlenhuth (YC ’12), one of the founders of the company has been featured in Forbes as an “All-Star Entrepreneur.” Cofounder Zack Parisa (Forestry ’09) has been profiled in Bloomberg.  

Along with Chad Oliver (Pinchot Professor of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale), Max and Zack are the cofounders of SilviaTerra, a startup whose “mission is to develop technology to enable superior forest management.” The company offers technology like “Timber Scout,” which uses satellite imagery and ground lots to accurately measure forest inventories, and “Plot Hound,” cruise software that runs on smartphones which allows users to navigate and collect data about forests in the field.

Max describes himself as “incurably optimistic,” and it comes through, even over Skype. He modestly notes that the company has made “a significant amount of money” adding that he thinks “for any startup, making any dollars is a good sign of success.                                   

According to the Forbes article, this significant amount of money totaled more than $200,000 in August 2012, and was expected to reach $1 million by the end of the year, and to triple next year. SilviaTerra is also getting ready to hire their first employee, a large step for any company.

A “MANUALLY INTENSIVE” START

The significance of the business opportunity developed organically over time.  Max came across the idea when he responded to a random email call for lab workers in the School of Forestry as an undergraduate. One of the graduate students in the lab had figured out a method of using satellites to determine species of trees in forest. 

“He was going to publish this in his master’s thesis, and I said, whoa slow down a sec. We started running the numbers and stuff, and it looked like it could really be a business,” he said.

This student was Zack. Thus, Max, Zack, and Chad, the professor running the lab, decided to start SilviaTerra and create a product based on Zack’s idea. 

“The product we came out with worked, but it wasn’t as efficient as it could be, scalable as it could be, as accurate as it could be. It was accurate enough, but we’re always trying to push the limits,” said Max. 

He emphasizes that the product was “not some magical wondrous fully-formed thing,” noting that entrepreneurship is hard. The beginning of SilviaTerra “was a manually intensive process,” requiring a month or two to set up the remote sensing technology for each new area.  “A lot of people think you can just put yourself in a garage for a year and build an amazing product and put it on the shelves and it’ll fly off – and that never happens.”

One of the biggest challenges that SilviaTerra currently faces is an industry that uneasily embraces change – after all, “trees aren’t going anywhere.” Max and Zack confronted the challenge by meeting with their customers individually to better understand their needs.

Max told the story of their “great southern road trip”: “Zack and I got into this tiny Ford Ranger truck and decided ‘We’re going to go meet anyone in the south who has more than 10,000 acres’. We had no plan besides getting in this truck. We would call people and ask if we could meet with them. We had really good meeting with all these guys, but we were ultra ultra low budget. We would stay in the most disgusting places, like the 30 dollar a night motels. It was just sometimes cleaner to not take a shower. It was a good time. We’re hoping to not ever have to do that ever again.”

STARTING A MOVEMENT

SilviaTerra is a company built on data. “Our word is our business,” Max said, promising to never overpromise and under-deliver. Max passionately believes in the strength of his product, and it is increasingly evident as the company continues to grow.

Max sees SilviaTerra as pioneering quantitative environmental management of renewable resources. Industries like oil, coal, and gas are extremely quantitatively sophisticated, but that level of rigor has - until now - been impossible for messy, vibrant, complicated things like forestry, biodiversity, and erosion control. “If you can change the way we interact with complex natural systems, that’s a huge thing for sustainability, and it’s a better quality of life for everybody,” he said. “Right now, we can give you better, next level data, and we can make more decisions with this better data.

“There was never really doubt in my mind that it wasn’t going to work,” he said. “The thing that’s different about this is that it’s a super real problem that people will pay dollars for right now. It’s just a categorically better solution that solves a real problem – it’s very tangible.” 

SOLVING REAL PROBLEMS

This theme of solving real problems runs through Max’s experience in entrepreneurship. He points out that there is much more freedom in a startup to solve problems one is interested in, as opposed to trying to turn the “cruise ship” of a large corporation. In entrepreneurship, one can work hard to solve problems that matter, instead of working hard to make someone else rich. 

For new entrepreneurs, Max encourages them to seek out older people with operating experience in industry and have them show you the challenges they're facing.  It's a great way to find real, tangible problems that other young entrepreneurs are never even aware of.

“Most startups that come out of college are limited by people’s experience as students,” he pointed out. “A lot of the startups are some sort of app, some sort of online food delivery service, some sort of dating thing. They’re all very first world problems. For another thing, every other student in the world is thinking about those kinds of companies.”

His advice to would-be changemakers? “Go out there, scout some random unconventional problems, and solve them.”

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Feb
08
2012
BY AVERY FALLER

Earlier this week, Encendia Biochar (YEI ’10) unveiled its 2012 product line, which features two products: “Urban Blend” and “Spring Blend,” both proprietary biochar blends developed by the company.  The 1/3 cubic ft. bags, available at encendia.com, are stylishly designed with a rustic-looking print that explains the properties of biochar, and its potential uses and benefits.

Encendia was founded in 2009 by Michael Sesko (CEO), Justin Freiberg (Chief Marketing Officer), Peter Kuhn (Chief Technology Officer), George Collins and Bidisha Banerjee. It got off to a quick start when it won the 2011 Sabin Environmental Venture Prize, which is awarded every year by Yale University’s Center for Business and the Environment to an environmentally oriented, for-profit business.

As its name suggests, Encendia’s main product is biochar, which is a soil-enhancing, carbon-rich mixture, made from the pyrolysis of biomass, or in layman’s terms, the transformation of organic matter into a carbon-filled soil amendment.  Biochar is porous like a sponge, giving the soil the ability to retain greater amounts of water and fertilizer, increasing yield.  Also, microorganisms that plants depend on are able to colonize the surfaces of the biochar, decreasing the need for pesticides.  Although biochar has been known to increase the fertility of soil for hundreds of years, currently it is not widely sold in garden shops. Encendia is changing that. A growing number of stores across New York and New England are carrying its products.

 “One way to think about it is that the academic understanding of biochar has thus far outpaced the commercialization of it because companies are not sure if the market is ready for it,” Justin explained, adding, “In some ways, fertilizer is the high-fructose corn syrup of soil, giving a quick boost to the soil in the short term, while the benefits of biochar are longer-term. It keeps your soil stronger for years. Add the biochar to some high quality food for the soil, as we do, and you have a potent mix.”

While synthetic fertilizers are great short-term solutions, they tend to run off of soils. Encendia’s biochar blends are extremely durable and once applied, will continue to provide benefits to the soil for years to come, as evidenced in the historical terra preta soils of the Amazon basin, which remain bountiful centuries after biochar was incorporated into them.  Biochar also aids in the process of carbon sequestration by storing stable carbon in the soil.

Encendia’s current products were developed specifically for gardening enthusiasts with small indoor and outdoor gardens.  However, to test and optimize their biochar blends to the New England soil and weather, they have been working with  local partner farms with positive results.

The history of biochar as well as the visual properties of its bags will help Encendia create a brand-image and sell its product. Justin has been securing shelf-space for at local stores, and educating retailers on the properties of biochar, which they can then pass on to customers. Surprisingly enough, many of the store owners had never even heard of biochar despite working in the gardening industry, which just goes to show that the market is unsaturated. 

You can look for Encendia’s products in garden stores around Connecticut, or on their website encendia.com.  Both Spring and Urban Blends 1/3 cubic ft. bags are available for $17.95 a piece, just in time for Spring planting.

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Dec
08
2011
By Avery Faller

As anyone who has ever owned a share or two of stock can tell you, keeping track of your investments can be a difficult and painstaking process—hence the preponderance of websites offering to help you manage your portfolio.  This process is further complicated when your investments are not listed on the stock market, like a house or a piece of artwork. 

You can imagine then the difficulties that might arise when investing in a living organism whose literal growth (and death) directly affects the asset’s value.  Which is why, when you invest in forests, made up of thousands, and sometimes millions of trees, it can be quite difficult to get an accurate read on their value. 

Enter Zack Parisa FES ’11 and Max Uhlenhuth YC ’12, who cofounded SilviaTerra to help “enable superior forest management.”  Currently companies that own forests estimate the value of their timber by having ground crews record data for sample plots.  From this data they extrapolate the value of timber across a larger plot of land they own.  SilviaTerra has developed technology using satellite imagery to automate and improve the extrapolation process.  The accuracy of the computer-based satellite image analysis allows SilviaTerra to greatly reduce the size of the sample plot needed to calibrate their equations.  As the cost of having crews of experienced foresters on the ground measuring trees can quickly accumulate, this reduction in sample plot size correlates with a large savings in employing SilviaTerra over traditional methods of inventorying forests.  

“We require less ground data to get better results,” Zack explained, highlighting the advantage of their satellite-based approach.  The technology behind SilviaTerra comes from the expansion of research that Zack was conducting at the Yale School of Forestry in Dr. Chad Oliver’s lab.  “We sell data to companies, consultants and landowners to show them what they actually own,” said Zack.  “We have to be right. Integrity is paramount.”

Proof that their software is a viable alternative to traditional methods is the success that they have had in signing companies up for their service.  SilviaTerra recently closed a deal with one of the largest timber companies in the US, to provide inventory data.  The company, along with several other smaller companies that they have already worked with, make up their quickly growing portfolio of partners. 

Although they are currently targeting companies with holdings over 100,000 acres, they hope to eventually be able to provide their service to smaller companies as well, as the majority of forests in the United States are held in small plots. 

“Better information is always a good thing and management depends on good information,” Max said.  “If we can be a key enabler of high quality forest management then we are creating real value in the world.”

SilviaTerra is already well on its way to achieve this goal with its automated plot inventorying website and Plot Hound, an app that allows the user to employ an Android device as a sophisticated forest sampler.  Keep your eye on SilviaTerra in the coming months as it continues to expand its client-base and technological portfolio.

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